DVD Release Date: April 8, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: December 13, 2013
Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images)
Genre: Fantasy
Run Time: 161 min
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice)

Welcome back to war-ravaged Middle Earth. It’s a more thrilling place than last we left it.

The first chapter in Peter Jackson's Hobbit saga was the result of its own unexpected journey, becoming the first of three films to adapt the modest novel rather than the originally slated two-movie arc. And it showed, with some scenes laboring on well past their purpose, even as the film overall was a worthy – if less substantial – prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Excess can still be felt in this second chapter, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but the bloat is gone and it clocks in as the shortest of Jackson's five Middle Earth movies so far at 161 minutes (with just a 2 ½-hour narrative from opening title to eternal credit roll (after which, FYI, no extra bonus scene plays)). It's still Lord of the Rings-lite, though darker than its Hobbit predecessor, nevertheless standing out as a premium Hollywood entertainment that can still teach other blockbuster lit-franchises a thing or two.

So let's see, where'd we leave off? Gandalf is leading the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and a band of dwarves down from the Misty Mountains. Deep inside Mount Erebor lies the Arkenstone, a jewel that will give Thorin Oakenshield the right to lay claim to his title as Dwarf King of the Lonely Mountain and bestow its endless riches upon all the lands. But first they must face great peril in the dark forest of Mirkwood before ultimately facing the Dragon of Legend himself – the indestructible Smaug – who hoards the dwarf treasures deep inside the bosom of Erebor. I may have missed some geeky details, but that's the gist.

Along the way there's the standard talk of war, grave danger, forces building, evil rising, darkness descending... quests, honor, prophecies and fate... making bold introductions of the Son of So-and-So being from the land of Such-and-Such, with resolute declarations of fighting to the death, and the fear of all being lost. It's boilerplate fantasy genre in many respects, but that's exactly what people expect and what Jackson delivers yet again.

CrosswalkMovies.com: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Video Movie Review from crosswalkmovies on GodTube.

Desolation of Smaug doesn't drag on too long between battles of various scale, all choreographed and produced with thrilling (and violent) precision. A fast-paced acrobatic battle down a steep roaring river is a particular highlight – even as the familiar aesthetic of blue, copper, and gray makes the film a bit too dark for its own good. Any added value of 3D gets lost in this murky, muted palette. Nevertheless, there is spectacle here that doesn't disappoint, capped off by Smaug when he's finally revealed in the film's final act. The dragon is as impressive and detailed a CGI creature as we've seen, and Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) licks his chops with every menacingly delivered line.